Why be­com­ing a fa­ther can be so dif­fer­ent the sec­ond time around.

Father­hood the sec­ond time around.

Elle (Canada) - - StoryBoard - By James Grainger

twenty years ago, I was the first of my friends to be­come a par­ent, an ex­pe­ri­ence that was, to put it mildly, sober­ing. I was in my late 20s and had just closed out more than a decade of hang­ing around with a hard-par­ty­ing Toronto crowd of wannabe artists and mu­si­cians. I still dreamed of writ­ing the next Great Canadian Novel, but, like many of my bo­hemian friends, I worked late hours in a down­town bar.

Ev­ery­thing changed when my daugh­ter, Petra, was born. I traded black jeans for comfy flan­nel pants and lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion for card­board books chron­i­cling the ad­ven­tures of bright felt an­i­mals. My def­i­ni­tion of an all-nighter went from closing down a booze can at sun­rise to clean­ing spit-up off my T-shirt at 4 a.m.

I’m not com­plain­ing: Be­com­ing a dad was the best thing that had ever hap­pened to me. I had re­jected al­most ev­ery de­mand of proper adult­hood un­til the day my daugh­ter looked up at me from her hos­pi­tal swad­dling cloth, her lov­ing eyes and to­tal help­less­ness an­nounc­ing an ob­vi­ous fact: She didn’t need a party buddy; she needed a par­ent—right then.

Un­for­tu­nately, my own party bud­dies didn’t share my en­thu­si­asm for par­ent­hood. Ev­ery new par­ent learns that your child­less friends will love hold­ing a warm bun­dle and in­hal­ing that in­tox­i­cat­ing new­born scent—for about 15 min­utes. When it was time for me or my girl­friend to soothe Petra by walk­ing her around the kitchen for two hours, those same friends made their ex­cuses and es­caped to familiar habi­tats: the must-try Asian-fu­sion restau­rant or the mar­tini bar that in­ge­niously com­bined cran­berry and ap­ple. (Hey, it was the ’90s.)

When Petra was eight months old, her mother went back to work, which made me the pri­mary care­giver— and the only stay- at- home dad in my pro­gres­sive down­town neigh­bour­hood. How to fill our days? (Trust me, you can hear “Baby Bel­uga” only so many times h

be­fore plot­ting to drown Raffi.) Luck­ily, it was sum­mer and we lived near a park. Sud­denly, those par­ents push­ing mega-strollers through the play­ground—once hazy fig­ures in my pe­riph­eral vi­sion—were the most in­ter­est­ing peo­ple in the city.

I over­came my nat­u­ral shy­ness and soon chat­ted my way into a neigh­bour­hood “moth­ers group.” Ev­ery week we gath­ered in a living room with our kids, mugs of milky tea and a pent-up need to com­pare notes on teething and tantrums. One thing quickly be­came clear: We were all ter­ri­fied of mess­ing up our chil­dren. We’d learned, from decades of pop cul­ture and TV psy­chol­o­gists, that if we failed to be per­fect nur­tur­ing par­ents, our ad­ven­tur­ous, ea­ger-to-learn tod­dlers would grow into emo­tion­ally stunted adults who surfed from one psy­chi­a­trist’s couch to the next.

To meet this ideal, we all turned to some form of child-cen­tred par­ent­ing, a then emerg­ing phi­los­o­phy that stressed pos­i­tive af­fir­ma­tion over pun­ish­ment. Con­tro­ver­sially, it also pri­or­i­tized chil­dren’s needs over their par­ents’ oc­ca­sion­ally di­verg­ing in­cli­na­tions. Let­ting a baby “cry it out” was frowned upon, as were for­mula, guilt trips and ex­press­ing any im­pa­tience in the lit­tle one’s pres­ence. Some­times the line be­tween “needs” and “wants” blurred. If Petra wanted to sleep in our bed, I rolled over and made room. And if I felt like scream­ing when she wouldn’t go down for a nap, I grit­ted my teeth and put the Raffi CD back on.

Flash for­ward 20 years. Petra is in uni­ver­sity, I’m in a lov­ing mar­riage and I’m fi­nally a full-time au­thor and writer. I’m also the fa­ther of a new baby, lit­tle Char­lie, a force of na­ture with peri­win­kle­blue eyes and the sweet­est smile. Father­hood the sec­ond time around is still full of brain-seiz­ing, heart-squeez­ing emo­tions—fear dur­ing Char­lie’s first cold, joy sparked by his gur­gly gig­gles—but it’s also def­i­nitely eas­ier, like slip­ping on a favourite tai­lored jacket with old love notes in the pock­ets.

It’s true that you worry less about your sec­ond child. Hav­ing shep­herded Petra through the har­row­ing first two years, I’m less in­clined to worry when Char­lie hits a bump in the road—or his head against mine. Ba­bies cry and throw up and get fevers, tod­dlers eat dirt and throw tantrums that would get an adult ar­rested and some­times par­ents get frus­trated at the end of a long day. It’s also true that it’s a lot eas­ier to walk a teething baby in the mid­dle of the night when you’re in your late 20s than in your late 40s, but I can deal with that.

My per­sonal cir­cum­stances aren’t the only thing that has changed. So­ci­ety has caught up to many of the prac­tices that seemed rad­i­cal 20 years ago. Birthing cen­tres in cities are now com­mon, as is the op­tion to have a doula or mid­wife in the de­liv­ery room. Chang­ing gen­der roles and flex­i­ble work ar­range­ments en­cour­age fa­thers to share par­ent­ing du­ties, in­clud­ing stay­ing at home with their ba­bies. To­day, four of my wife’s new-mother friends divide child-care du­ties with their hus­bands.

This ex­panded role for fa­thers is re­flected in movies and TV shows like What to Ex­pect When You’re Ex­pect­ing, This Is 40, Mod­ern Fam­ily and the re­al­ity show Mod­ern Dads. Twenty years ago, I wanted to scream ev­ery time some­one called me “Mr. Mom” af­ter the ter­ri­ble Michael Keaton film. Now, dads with baby car­ri­ers are ev­ery­where. The cul­tural pen­du­lum has also swung away from over­do­ing child-cen­tred par­ent­ing. A new group of child­hood ex­perts warn against the dan­gers of too much nur­tur­ing, which they re­fer to, in omi­nous quo­ta­tion marks, as “heli­copter par­ent­ing”: the ten­dency of anx­ious par­ents to swoop into ac­tion at the first sign of dis­tress in the sand­box. To­day’s par­ents are more likely to im­pose bed­times and sched­ules and let their ba­bies oc­ca­sion­ally cry it out. They’re also more open to ex­press­ing the fears and frus­tra­tions of par­ent­hood, as ev­i­denced by the pop­u­lar­ity of the bed­time book Go the F--k to Sleep and a slew of blogs like “Scary Mommy” and “Peo­ple I Want to Punch in the Throat,” where par­ents vent about the de­mands of child­rear­ing with caus­tic hu­mour.

As much as I find the hon­esty re­fresh­ing, I hope that par­ents don’t re­sort to a rigid, sched­ule-based form of child care. Ba­bies don’t fake emo­tions to get at­ten­tion. If they cry, it’s be­cause they’re scared or un­com­fort­able and have no other way to ask for help. It’s a par­ent’s job to soothe those fears and guide a child to­ward in­de­pen­dence at a pace that works for ev­ery­one in the fam­ily.

I’m re­minded of this give-and-take ev­ery night, when Char­lie and I play a game in the bath. He kicks off into the open wa­ter, my hand sup­port­ing his back, and as he nears the far end of the tub, his eyes grow wide with ex­cite­ment. It’s ex­cit­ing out there on his own, but it’s scary. He looks back at me, and when he sees my en­cour­ag­ing smile, he kicks his lit­tle legs again, out into the open wa­ter. n

Twenty years ago, I wanted to scream ev­ery time some­one called me “Mr. Mom.” Now, dads with baby car­ri­ers are ev­ery­where.

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